by Mark Hay, October 2010
The greatest classroom in the world is the world itself. When a person is immersed in the movement of life around them, the knowledge they gain is not stored in their brains alone but in their bodies and bones and hearts.
When I began teaching I had the dream of a school where learning happened in the world, not just in the classroom. For the past 18 years I have been teaching and learning in many different types of settings and environments. I have also observed and learned from many great teachers, in all kinds of places. I have learned many things about teaching and learning that I would like to put into practice through Coast Live Oak School.
Indoor classrooms are very sterile learning environments. I have taught in the classroom, and indoor classrooms are excellent places for writing, reading, discussion, and reflection, but they are limited; it is difficult to give students real life, direct experiences in the classroom.
The direct experience of learning happens in living life, in real places. Learning can happen everywhere, all the time. When we have people around us who stimulate and encourage our natural curiosity and share our discoveries, then things really get rolling!
Our intellectual life is informed and enriched by the kind of direct experiences we have had in the real world. In math and the sciences, direct experience, observation, and measurement provide the data from which ideas and perceptions are built. Direct experience gives us images, smells, textures, nuances of light and temperature and wind direction, and real sensory experiences… the essential elements of very vivid memories. These details enrich our imagination and expand our creative and perceptive abilities.
Our family and social life is enriched by our ability to empathize with other people from our own experiences, and by using our imagination. Direct experiences enrich our imaginations because they give us the raw materials from which to visualize situations and perspectives we may not have experienced.
What do students experience in the living classroom at Coast Live Oak School? Students learn about erosion by actually observing rain flow down trails and ravines on rainy days. Students and teachers make tools, work on projects, and solve problems together. Students and teachers share observations about what they see and experience. Students of different ages talk together reflecting on the adventures of the day. These are just a few examples of what happens in a living classroom.
Here in Southern California, we can be outdoors year round and we have tremendous natural wilderness all around us. I think natural places are ideal learning places for many reasons. Here are two that I feel are most important:
-In nature there are more than just human factors to consider. In nature we must pay attention to plants and insects and animals as well. This widens our gaze and expands our perceptive abilities to include people as well as other living things in our assessments.
-In nature, life in many phases and forms is happening all the time. The amount of learning experiences that are available to us in nature, whether learning math or science or language or art, is much greater than in a classroom simply because there is so much action to observe and be a part of!
Please notice that I say experiences, not information. I love libraries, and I love to read. But books and libraries are full of information, not experiences. We can experience reading a great book, but how much richer is that experience when we have real, personal experiences with which to relate to the people and circumstances in the book.
When we are given opportunity for direct experience we learn more quickly. When we are encouraged to reflect on our direct experiences through conversation, telling stories, dancing, writing, making equations, creating art, making things with our hands, or teaching others, we are able to carry the learning experience in a meaningful and connected way, and we are able to share it with others. This is real learning.
We can reflect together on our direct experiences by expressing real wonder and curiosity, and paying attention to the stories, observations, and reflections that unfold from this engagement. Human beings have been learning this way… by experience, reflection, and creative sharing… for thousands of years, long before there were universities, lecture halls, and standardized tests. In my experience this is the best way to learn, and the most natural way to learn. The end result of this type of learning is not a large mental storehouse of fragmented facts but a multitude of connections created between oneself, the world, and other living beings.